Being told to remove all your clothes in an audition. Having to wear a bikini “to prove you don’t have tattoos”. Being asked to “breast-feed” a doll.
These are not stories from Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood. They’re the experiences of British, female actors, auditioning for parts here in the UK.
The Weinstein allegations, which have seen dozens of women come forward with stories of massage requests, indecent exposure and varying degrees of unwanted sexual contact, have opened up conversation about the “casting couch” culture.
But little light has been shed on the issue here. Now, three female actors tell HuffPost what really goes on in audition rooms in Britain.
They explain that the problems they face often start long before the auditions begin.
An accomplished stage actor, Ruth Tapp has starred in touring productions with the Rural Nations theatre company and Hopscotch Theatre. In 2016, she successfully crowdfunded her own short film, ‘Eduardo Munez’.
As is the case for many actors, Ruth’s career began with auditions for parts in adverts and she recalls one incident that’s stuck in her mind.
While auditioning for a role in a baby product commercial, she was required to sing a lullaby. The two male members of the casting team present then made another request.
“In the middle of the room there was a plastic doll,” she tells HuffPost. “I was asked if I could pretend to breastfeed the doll. That was the casting.
“They didn’t pressure me to show my breast but they did ask me to ‘swap the baby over’ on top of my clothes. The whole thing felt really uncomfortable.
“It felt like they were asking me to do it for a laugh rather than as an actual requirement.”
Nicola Thorpstarted trying out for paid jobs, many of them commercials, at the age of 19. She now has a regular role on one of the country’s leading TV shows, has previously landed parts in ‘Doctor Who’ and daytime soap ‘Doctors’, but says there was a point where she was going to “two or three auditions a day, especially for advert castings”.
“He said he wanted to see a genuine shocked reaction,” she says. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m an actress…?’”
I was asked if I could pretend to breastfeed the doll. That was the casting.” Ruth Tapp
The director told her the bikini was needed because “the girl would be getting out of bed at the beginning of the advert and they wanted to make sure we didn’t have any tattoos”.
“You’ll be partnered with a guy and they say, ‘Do you have any tattoos?’, and he just says no,” she adds. “Whereas women have to show up and take our clothes off.”
Being asked to remove clothes in auditions is more common than you might expect.
“I was in one where they said, ‘This character is required to be in a scene in her underwear so would you be prepared to take your clothes off now?’” Ruth says. “I was like, ‘Not really because I wasn’t told this in advance, I didn’t know that it was something that was expected’.
“I didn’t do it for that particular casting because I hadn’t been told. Without being given notice on that or being told, I didn’t feel comfortable with it. The attitude [from them] was that I’d ruined my chances because there would be other actresses who would be willing to do it.”
In her experiences, these “odd” auditions did not end when she stopped going for advert roles, and she recalls another casting, this time for a theatre role, that left her feeling “uncomfortable”.
“I did an improvisation with an actor I’d never worked with before and he wanted to kiss me. I didn’t know the guy and it’s weird,” she says. “I understand that in theatre productions you’ll have to kiss as part of the storyline, but to make that part of the audition, to me, was odd.
“Your ability to kiss somebody doesn’t prove if you can act or not. If you’re a good actress, that will come later in rehearsals, you don’t have to do that in your first meeting with somebody in the casting room.”
Jumaan Short is an actress, writer and filmmaker, who recently starred in a short film, ‘Mother’, alongside Miriam Margolyes. She’s previously written about her own experience with Harvey Weinstein.
Jumaan also speaks of experiencing unwanted physical contact at a recent audition. She explains that each time the director came into the room of waiting actresses, he “was flirting with every single girl and giving them compliments that were sickening”.
“I just thought, why can’t it be straight to the point?” she says. “When it got to my turn, he held my hand and walked me into the casting room. Yes, this isn’t a horrific story, but I didn’t feel comfortable with that.”
In the acting world, the age old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” can often still ring true, as it’s not uncommon for directors, producers and actors to collaborate on multiple projects. This can make reporting uncomfortable encounters even more difficult.
He held my hand and walked me into the casting room. This isn’t a horrific story, but I didn’t feel comfortable with that." Jumaan Short
“People do like to work with people they know and they re-employ people,” Ruth says. “But this sometimes means the person you might want to make a complaint about is friends with the director or producer, or is even related to them.”
In Ruth’s experience, drama school did little to prepare her for the possibility of facing inappropriate behaviour in auditions and one tutor even advised her to be “flirty” to get parts.
“He had given me feedback on a performance I’d done and said to me that I was a good actress, but that what I might need to change is that I’m not flirty enough,” she says. “He said, ‘Directors do like to work with women they find attractive’ so I might like to think about being a more flirtatious person in the audition room.
“At the time, I didn’t challenge it. It’s only now that I’ve started considering things and thinking, ‘That was wrong, they shouldn’t have said that to me’.
“That’s the sort of culture coming from drama school, you have to present yourself as a whole package, it’s not just about how you perform.
“You have to present yourself as somebody they might want to work with. If they’re a heterosexual male one of the reasons they might want to work with you is that they might find you attractive. That was the hint.”
Ruth states that she was not given advice on what to do if a casting director acted inappropriately.
“I like to think that if I’d come in with a really horrific story, they would have said ‘No that’s not acceptable’,” she says. “But there were no guidelines about anything like that. It wasn’t even talked about.
“You’re almost taught that the director is God and you have to do what they say,” she adds. “From the moment you walk in the door, you need to be wearing the right things, behave the right way and act the right way because they could pick anyone they want, you have to make them pick you.”
Actors land auditions after replying to casting calls, which are either advertised online or sent through via their agents, and the adverts themselves are also part of the problem.
“Often the breakdowns for the job will say things they don’t say for the male casting,” Ruth explains. “For example, there will be two characters, both of them 25. The male character will be described as ‘an intelligent guy. Rebellious and brave and strong, he’s really confident’. They’re character traits.
“Then you see the female breakdown and it will say, “Must be exceptionally beautiful. Must be prepared to do nudity. We need a stunning beauty for this one’. That doesn’t describe anything. That’s not a character, it’s a physical description.”
“I’m sick and tired of casting breakdowns,” Nicola says. “My favourite one that I always get put forward for is, ‘Attractive but not unattainable’. That is really, really, really common. We are so used to this.
“You go, ‘Ok, what does that even mean?‘. It probably means they want me looking like ‘a girl next door’ but what does that mean? That the girl next door is unattainable? But someone who is more attractive we shouldn’t go near?
“Yeah, it’s only one little comment, one little thing, but ‘attractive but not unattainable’? It’s as if a woman can be attained.”
It’s also common for opportunities to present themselves through personal contacts. Making social connections with the hope of furthering your career prospects is common practice, but comes with it’s own risks.
“He had written this script about an incestuous relationship. He wanted to play the brother and he wanted me to play the sister." Ruth Tapp
Before she attended drama school, and without an agent to field potential requests, Ruth was contacted personally by one man who offered her a role in his film.
“He had written this script about an incestuous relationship and he wanted to play the brother and he wanted me to play the sister,” she explains . “I was completely not comfortable with it at all.
“I said, ‘I’m not doing this project, it’s weird, I don’t like it’. And then after that he was sending me abusive messages saying, ‘You said you’re an actress but you’re not professional because you’re not willing to take a risk and do this script’.”
At numerous points in her career, Jumaan has attempted to build opportunities through networking and around three years ago, a family member introduced her to a male director in the hope that he would consider her for a role.
“My brother said, ‘You should meet up with him, he works on films’,” she explains. “So I went to have a drink with him because that’s what you do.
“He’s married and quite a bit older but I could tell what he wanted, even then. I just thought, ‘My brother introduced you to me’.”
Jumaan now tries to safeguard herself from these situations, by imposing strict boundaries: “I network at work. When I’m on set with professional people, that’s where I do it. I don’t go for drinks, I don’t go to parties.”
Critics might ask why more female actors don’t make this decision, but as all three women point out, the pressure to land a role that will kickstart your career is overwhelming.
“You don’t feel like you have a backbone of work behind you so you’re more likely to say yes [to things that make you uncomfortable] and you feel like you have to say yes,” Jumaan says.
“You’re enthusiastic and naive and excited, and so like most young people, you can get into certain situations that you wouldn’t have if it was just a bloke that you met down the pub on a Friday night.”
“There are people who work in the West End who get approached for film roles, so don’t go through their agent,” Nicola explains. “You end up going to auditions where people might end up contacting you by non-legit means. Lots of actors I know will go to the auditions because they think ‘Well this might be the one that makes my career’.”
“You have it drummed into you at drama school that you are one of millions,” Ruth says. “If you don’t want to do this job then there are 20 million girls behind you who will want to do it.
“It’s a case of, ‘You have to be the one, you have to go the extra mile, it’s so hard to succeed. You have to be prepared to do something nobody else would do’.”